Why Do We Say That?

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“A lawyer is a mouthpiece or a shyster or a lip,” a Saturday Evening Post article explained in 1929. No lawyer likes to be called a mouthpiece or lip —Frank Sinatra’s lawyer Milton A. (“Mickey”) Rudin waved a libel suit at Barron’s after it ran a letter from him in 1979 under the headline SINATRA’S MOUTHPIECE —but of the three terms, shyster is by far the strongest.

Efforts have been made over the years to derive shyster from such diverse sources as the name of Shakespeare’s character Shylock; from an old slang sense of shy , meaning someone ofdisreputable or questionable character; from the Gaelic siostair , a barrator, in the sense of one who initiates quarrels or groundless lawsuits; and from thesurname Scheuster, referring to a particularly unscrupulous lawyer said to have operated in NewYork City in the 1840s.

The Scheuster theory was the most widely accepted until Roger Mohovich, a newspaperlibrarian at the New-York Historical Society, discovered what is apparently the term’s first appearance in print. This came in an account on July 29, 1843, by Mike Walsh, editor of The Subterranean , of a conversation that he had had with an especially artful lawyer, Cornelius Terhune. Terhune asked Walsh, then campaigning against corruption in the courts, to take care to distinguish him from the many incompetent lawyers who flocked around the Tombs, as the Manhattan House of Detention for Men was commonly called. Terhune characterized such legal riffraff with a word that Walsh had never heard. So the editorasked him to explain.

 

“The Counsellor expressed the utmost surprise at our ignorance of the true meaning of the expressive appellation ‘shiseter’; after which, by special request, he gave a definition, which we would now give our readers, were it not that it wouldcertainly subject us to a prosecution for libel and obscenity.”

Mr. Mohovich forwarded this citation to Professor Gerald L. Cohen, of the University ofMissouri-Rolla, who had already done considerable research on shyster . (Among other laborioustasks, he had gone through lists of New York lawyers of the period without finding a Scheuster.) The professor knew that Walsh had spelled the word in different ways before settling on shyster and had applied it to incompetent lawyers before employing it as an epithet for unscrupulous ones, especially those who bilked inmates of the Tombs, demanding payment in advance for services that were never rendered.

Now the shiseter spelling and thecontext in which it first appeared enabled Professor Cohen to demonstrate in “Origin of the Term ‘Shyster’” ( Forum Anglicum , 1982) that shyster evolved from shiser or shicer , underworld slang of theperiod for a worthless fellow, which derived in turn from the German Scheisser , an incompetent person or,more to the point, an incontinent one. And Scheisser , finally, comes from Scheisse , shit.

Which is why Walsh could not pass on Terhune’s definition without risk of prosecution—and why the term is a much greater insult than if it had derived fromShylock, shy , siostair , or Scheuster.

—Hugh Rawson